Life's journey of an uninteresting man - By Milan Lorman

English version.    Slovak version.

Family background
Early Childhood
Boyhood in Lazy
Student years
Leaving the nest
Eastern front
Six Days Behind Enemy Lines
A Little Light Relief at the Front
A Close Brush With Disaster
The Story of the Lifesaving Grapes
Prisoner of War
My French and American experience / One year in Austria
Four years in England
To the end of the Earth

My French and American experience / One year in Austria

Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

After crossing the bridge over the river Oder into Germany I and my fellow ex-PoW's have spent a couple of days in Frankfurt dealing with a string of bureaucrats. There were interviews or de-briefings to do, formalities to satisfy, forms and declarations to sign and who can remember what else. Life in Germany was slowly trying to return to peacetime normal. German normal, of course, because by that time hardly anyone in Germany could recall what European normal used to be around the turn of the century forty years before.

We were issued D.P. (Displaced Persons) identity cards, ration cards, travel documents, letters of referral and the rest… and on the backs of these we soon started collecting a growing number of rubber stamp impressions and endorsements. Life, it seems, was heading towards even tighter controls and restrictions than those, which were imposed by the Nazis. In Germany has struck, what one writer has called, "the twenty fifth hour". Start of a new day, not necessarily better, but most certainly different, of a kind not experienced before. As I write these memoirs, sixty years on, we all know Big Brother. Well, in 1945 he was a little boy with a big future.

Finally, when we had all our papers in order, we could say "Good-bye!" to one another and head home in all the different directions. No, not really, because the trains were operating only on lines to and from Berlin. One could not by-pass the bombed-out capital. And so, in company with a friend, another ex-SS man from Strassburg in Alsass-Lothringen, the French-german disputed territory, we have set out by train in the direction of Berlin. The journey took a long time and when we have eventually reached our destination it was about noon of the following day, 18 October 1945.

The daylight hours in late autumn were rather short and it was necessary to find a place for the night before the time for curfew. My friend steered us into the French sector of the city, because he was now a French national and that's where we had hoped to find a bed for the night. (Well, two beds, really!). We ended up in the Wirchow hospital. After hot bath and good feed we spent the night finally sleeping in real beds, between real sheets, wearing real hospital pyjamas and we were feeling great. In the morning, after enjoying a fine breakfast, we were told to report at a certain address at a certain time. And we said good-bye to the nice people at the hospital. On the way to the appointed address my friend wanted to find some place where he could get a beer. He hadn't tasted one in many months. But I pointed out to him that we were running a bit late for that and told him that we can have that beer a little later. Neither of us had an inkling of how long that "little later" was going to take.

The address, to which we were directed, was a French military police station. The gendarmes there have unceremoniously checked us out for the tattooed blood group marks and totally ignoring our Russian release papers, transported us both, in hand cuffs, under heavy guard to the prison in the suburb of Tegel, which was also part of the French sector of Berlin at the time. Arriving at the prison we were separated and I have never met my Alsatian friend again. He was doubtless transported to France and had to face his Nemesis there. As for me, I was put into a solitary cell about 2 metres by 3½ and there I spent the next 16 months of my life. I was 21½ years old at the time of my incarceration and I would be almost 23 before the gates opened again.

Of course, I was given no indication how long I was about to stay under lock and key. The often used phrase "they threw away the key" applied in my case almost literally. No-one had any interest in me, no-one cared. One month followed another in a long succession and no-one talked to me, no-one investigated anything, I was not a German citizen or French and in the end, when the Frenchmen got around to contacting the Czechoslovak post-war authorities, they were told that as far as they were concerned, I myself had deprived myself of my Czechoslovak citizenship the day I joined the Waffen-SS. So there I was, alone in the world, a Stateless Person.

But, before this, my new status, finally crystallized, I had to suffer sixteen months of solitary confinement without contact with the outside world. The first nine months I didn't have even any contact with the occupant of the neighbouring cell. At first I tried to occupy my mind by reading a few books. Of course they were written in German, but I remember mainly my attempt to read the story of "Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert in the original French. You may remember from an earlier chapter of these recollections that only a few years earlier at school I had been more proficient in French than in German, but I must admit that reading the longwinded French novel was for me hard going.

The prison administration made some token attempts to keep mainly long-term prisoners like myself from getting too depressed by giving us something useful to do. Unfortunately it was still the sort of activity that continued to keep us in solitary confinement. For two or three months we were kept busy pasting blank pieces of paper over the top left corner on tens of thousands of official envelopes in order to cover the eagle and swastika emblem and so make them acceptable for use by the post-war German public service. Then one day the guards brought into each cell armfuls of straw.

No, it wasn't for us to lay on, instead they sprinkled it liberally with water and left more water in a bucket in each cell for us to keep the straw moist. That moisture kept the straw suitably pliable and we were instructed in the art of producing neat plaids of consistent width for the use by the footwear industry. It didn't take long for the initial half-hearted interest to wear off partly due to the monotony of the whole exercise but also by the pervasive smell of the wet straw.

It took the French gendarmes sixteen months to arrive at the conclusion that no-one has any interest in me or in my past. But by then I had already been punished by sixteen months of rather harsh imprisonment and there is no official entry anywhere in any file stating the reason why. I had not met either a solicitor or prosecutor or seen a judge or the inside (or outside, for that matter) of a courthouse. All I did see day after endless day was the same cramped cell, where the bed had to be lifted up and pinned to the wall, before I could walk five paces from the door to the little barred glassless window high up, just within the reach of my fingertips when I stood on my tiptoes, then make an about-turn and walk five paces back to the door.

The food we were given was not quite enough for survival, only for gradual dying. About the quality of the food it is best to say nothing. But, to be fair, few people even outside the prison gates were eating very much better. By the end of the first nine months of this existence my weight was down to 47 kg (I was 181cm tall), and my moral was lower than the proverbial snakes belly. During one of the periodic surprise cell inspections the wardens have come across a small box containing, at that time, 12 aspirin tablets. I had heard someone say that fifteen Aspirins would kill a person. So I was saving them by complaining from time to time of headache or some such thing. When they now asked me "What are these for?" I told them straight, "I intend to kill myself, - just look at me!" It worked. A day or two later I was taken to the cookhouse where from then on I worked every day in company with other "privileged" prisoners. Even though after each days work I still had to return to my single cell both my spirits and my body soon recovered and when the time came and I was finally released, my weight was back in the low eighties, and I was feeling good and fit.

On release from Tegel prison I was handed a slip of paper, a document of release on which, as I fortunately noticed, there was entered only the date of release ,,,19.2.47. I was about to step outside into a strange world full of suspicions, spies, black-marketeers, deserters, thieves and escapees from a thousand-and-one lock-ups and I would not have been able to account for the sixteen months since my release from the Russian captivity. Though I normally don't stand up for myself in the presence of Authority, I handed the release paper back to the officer at the desk and asked him to enter on it the date of incarceration. And there it is, in his handwriting, in German, in ink, in the top margin: Einlieferungstag ,,,19.10.45. Sixteen months to the day.

"I was living in a kind of no-man's land between soldier and civilian"

It was cold outside but I did have somewhere to go. One of the men I have befriended while working in the prison cookhouse, a Czech black-marketeer, gave me the address of his German girlfriend and I took to her a message from him. I spent a night in her flat, quite innocently, I assure you. I was still a virgin at the time, in spite of being a twenty-three-year-old returned soldier. In his message he most likely asked her to help me, because after a good nights rest in a comfortable bed and a fine breakfast, she packed for me a small travelling bag full of goodies, mostly food and clothing. Her boyfriend was apparently a good provider and even while he was in jail, his associates were taking care of his lady.

For all I know, there may have been a place for me in his little enterprise, but all I could think of was how to return home to my folks as soon as possible. My Czech friend in Tegel informed me a little about the then prevailing situation in the post-war Republic. Even the army Major at the Czechoslovak military mission in the Soviet sector, into whose care my French jailers tried to hand me, a good-natured old "Uncle", advised me to stay outside Czechoslovakia's borders for the sake of my continued good health. So, I asked the Frenchmen to enter on the release certificate as my home address the place, where I used to spend a few days every time I was in Vienna, during my association with the Danube Shipping Company. It was then the home of the family of one of my mothers former school friends, who was also instrumental in my getting the job with the Shipping Company back in 1942.

And so Vienna, then Graz and eventually the little town Anger bei Weiz became my next target on the journey back to civilian life. That's right, I was living in a kind of no-man's land between soldier and civilian, because I have not yet been discharged from the now dysfunctional service organization. How I ever found my way through the complicated maze of post-war bureaucratic red tape I shall never be able to re-trace and neither will the other millions of people whose lives were disrupted by the crazy politicians of those days. The more I think about it the more I feel that it wasn't so much a matter of skilful steering as simply rolling over on one's back and concentrating on staying afloat in the troubled waters.

After my release from the French-administered Tegel prison I wasted no time to get as far away from Frenchmen as possible. I took a train to Munich and from there in company of another returning soldier, an Austrian, tried to cross the border to Austria. He seemed to know his way around that part of the world so I have entrusted my fate into his hands and that is why to this day I have no idea at which point he has decided to cross the border. The germans let us cross without any problems but when we came to the Austrian border post, manned by, as far as I could tell, only one old man in an even older uniform, we did strike a problem. The post was located on an unimportant little track through the mountains and the road down into the valley was buried deep under a blanket of snow. The nearest Austrian village, we were told, was about six kilometres away and we will have to get there on foot.

We did set out downhill, but after less than half a kilometre it became obvious that we would not make it, certainly not before darkness fell. Back at the border post the old man advised us to go back to Munich and from there to the American PoW transit camp at Dachau. There, in due course, we would be given all the proper documents and could travel to our specified destination by train in comfort. The word "comfort" worked like magic, we had not experienced much of it for some time and so we have taken the old mans advice and spent the following two months in what was during the preceding several years a concentration camp. Our existence there was dull but, for ex-soldiers not particularly uncomfortable. The food was good and the bunks comfortable and so the two months have passed quickly enough.

Nothing much has happened to me during the two months I spent in Dachau. Most of the time we were just playing cards. But this story of mine is not the listing of important events, it is a collection of an ordinary mans memories. Only very seldom and then only very briefly has my life journey taken me close to someone important. One such occasion was my stay in Dachau. Just at that time in another section of the complex of buildings was waiting for his trial to come up SS colonel Otto Skorzeny, best remembered for his spectacular rescue of Benito Mussolini from his prison on Gran Sasso. Skorzeny, just like everybody else, had to wait for the post-war authorities to furnish him with the necessary personal papers in order to be able to start a new life as a civilian. But the need to be patient didn't stop him to simply vanish pretty well whenever he chose to visit his wife in Munich.

Several times he packed some hard to find things like chocolates, cigarettes, soap and such stuff, disappeared for a couple of days and eventually reported back at the main gate, sometimes wearing the uniform of an American officer. It did our subdued little hearts good to know that there is still someone there who can thumb his nose at the "victors". One other memory may be of some interest (or amusement). Many of the PoW's waiting in Dachau for their release documents were in sore need of replacement items of clothing. Preferably not service uniforms. The Americans were freely handing out American uniform jackets, trousers and boots to all who asked for clothing, but they insisted on one rule: on release the jackets must be returned to the store unless we managed to dye them some other colour. That was not easily done, because we could not go to town and buy the necessary dyes and, anyway, they would have been, like many non-essential goods, rather hard to find.

Luckily, probably by accident, someone came to notice that beetroot juice leaves a permanent spot on an American uniform jacket. From then on the Americans needed to secure increased supplies of both jackets and canned beetroot. The men were leaving the camp in some horribly spotty jackets but on arrival home they simply dyed their new clothes black and all was well.

Pretty soon my turn came to leave and with the release papers in hand and my address now stated to be Anger bei Weiz I have finally reached the place, where I last saw my parents and siblings two and half years earlier.

Of course, those two and half years have wrought a lot of changes in their fortunes also and they had long before my arrival departed back to Slovakia after the wars end. All I found in Anger was a large ships trunk full of things they had to leave behind in the attic of the house of one of their friends. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people in that small community who remembered all my folks with affection. Now they readily transferred those friendly feelings to my person and I felt warm and cosy in their midst. One of my fathers many friends, a master builder, employed me in his office as a draftsman and another, owner of a guesthouse in the centre of town, invited me to move into one of his best rooms for a minimal rent.

Local youngsters accepted me without any reservations especially when I turned out to be a good-enough guitar player to contribute another instrument to their local dance band. My closest friend was also living in a smaller room in the same guest house. He worked as a chemists assistant in the corner shop on the ground floor of our building. He was a handsome, tall fellow about the same age as myself but much more forward when it came to the opposite sex. One day, as we were standing on the footpath watching the Corpus Christi procession passing by, he said to me in a quiet voice, "Take a look at these Virgins sprinkling flower petals on the ground. Each year they are getting younger and younger."

I wonder if he realised as he said it that with his lifestyle he has contributed to that phenomenon. The day before the New Years Eve 1947 he said to me: "I have a problem. I have just added up the number of my girlfriends for the past year and the number is thirteen. That spells bad luck." Well, it ended up spelling Good luck for one more girl, because just before midnight the following day, during the Silvester dance, he told me quietly' "All's well ! The score is now fourteen."

I too had a girlfriend in Anger. In fact, during my thirteen months long stay in that town I had two. The first was Maria, whose family lived in the house next door and our windows, both upstairs, were positioned opposite each other, separated by a narrow lane between the two buildings. In the early days after my arrival I got into the habit of playing tunes on my mandolin, which I found among the things my family left behind. Maria thought it was really romantic and we started spending time together. Only days into our relationship came the 1st of May.

The boys in the village have done the traditional thing and planted a Maypole by the window of each of their girlfriends. And they did me the honour of erecting one for Maria. She was thrilled, I was feeling really a part of the community, but Maria's father and big Hulk of a brother didn't want any of that. The following morning Maria's Maypole was not only cut down but missing. All the boys of the village rallied round and a search later that day restored the Maypole, a little shorter, but looking victorious, to its rightful place. Maria's father then decided not to buck age-old tradition any further and instead sent Maria to live with her aunt in a distant town outside Steiermark. I can't blame the man for disapproving of me. It is one thing to accept a stranger into the community, but a different thing again is accepting him into one's family. And a girls father will always look at his daughters boyfriend as a potential son-in-law. All he saw in me was a penniless refugee with nothing to offer.

"I was hoping to secure some kind of scholarship"

With Maria out of the picture soon I have befriended Rosie. She lived only two doors away and worked as waitress in a guest house across the street. Her mother, a widow, lived alone on the outskirts of the village and we often visited her and spent time with her during weekends. Rosie's father tragically took his own life several years earlier and Rosie one day even showed me the tree from which they cut his body down. Very sad, but – life for the rest of us goes on.

Close to the beginning of the school year in September '47 I took my mothers crystal collection and a few other things out of the old sea trunk and sold it. The crystal, not the trunk. That money enabled me to stay at the Graz Polytechnic for one semester studying building construction. I was hoping to secure some kind of scholarship in order to continue my studies. Unfortunately, my applications were unsuccessful and I had to return to Anger.

Early in the spring of 1948 the continuity of work contracts for Herr Frankel's building firm started to dry up and he could not keep me in the office any longer. There was however plenty of good healthy outdoor work to be done in his stone quarry. I was a fit fellow in my mid-twenties and accustomed to hard work since my war service days. So I went on happily quarrying first building blocks of stone in the Frankel quarry and, towards the end of my stay in Austria I spent a couple of weeks working in a quarry for road metal in Weiz.

Then, one day an opportunity opened up for me to move from Austria to England and I took it. The powers that be have decided to ease the burden of expense, which the large numbers of refugees represented for the Austrian Government and instituted a scheme called "Westward-Ho". I have added my name to the long list of volunteers for re-settlement and in due course joined 999 other DP's (Displaced Persons) and set sail for England.

World War II had ended only three years earlier and the process of identifying people in any way compromised by their, either real or perceived, Nazi past was still very intensive and so, before we were allowed to travel across the Channel to England we had to be screened. Especially those of us who have served during the war in either the german civilian workforce or in their military. If my memory serves me, these detailed interviews and cross-checks were conducted in the city of Stuttgart.

The process was quite impressive. On a large table between the humble refugee and an array of interrogators, some civilian others uniformed, lay some four or five about A2-sized folios, These contained all available information gathered from all the territories affected by the wartime german occupation as well as Germany and Austria, listing units, dates, names, places and testimonies from local people. Both good and bad. In those early post-war years I was able to recall a lot more detail from my wartime past including names and dates, than I can recall today, and I was pleased to find that all was backed up by the intelligence records and I was on my way to England.

From Stuttgart our journey continued by train through Holland to the port Hoek van Holland near The Hague. Here I have for the first time in my life set foot on the deck of a sea-going ship. I didn't get to savour the new experience for very long because after only an overnight trip the ship tied up in the English port of Harwich. From there, once again by train, our 1000-strong group of DPs composed of who-knows-how-many nationalities travelled to our new temporary home, which was a refugee camp on the outskirts of a pleasant little town of Havant, near Portsmouth.

© 2006 Milan Lorman